Big Ten: Penn State Nittany Lions
You know when to watch them. You know where to watch them. Now it's time to figure out which Big Ten games are going to be the most important ones to watch in 2017.
The cutthroat East Division has plenty of high-powered matchups slated for the coming fall both in league play and in nonconference games earlier in the season. Let's take a look at the high-stakes battles that will have the most impact on the divisional race in the East, and largely on the college football landscape at large.
Ohio State vs. Penn State, Oct. 28
Let's start with the obvious. The defending conference champions visit the likely preseason No. 1 team in late October. If anyone is going to go toe-to-toe with Urban Meyer's high-powered Buckeyes, the Nittany Lions are a good bet. Penn State will head to the Horseshoe one week after another monster matchup against Michigan.
For the sake of keeping this list from getting too repetitive, let's lump the meetings between those three programs (Michigan plays Ohio State on the final Saturday of the season in a game that is, as usual, one of college football's biggest of the year) together. Whoever comes out of that round robin looking the best will more than likely have a strong case for a slot in the College Football Playoff. The stakes won't get any higher.
Ohio State vs. Oklahoma, Sept. 9
The second week of the season is loaded with intriguing and potentially season-shaping games. None will be a bigger draw than the top-10 rematch in Columbus. Ohio State beat the Sooners last season in Oklahoma with four passing touchdowns. The Buckeyes' tweaked passing attack for 2017 will get a chance to shine in prime time. If it succeeds, a victory would help the Big Ten's reputation as early-season narratives start to pick up steam and provide an early bullet point for Urban Meyer's playoff resume.
Penn State vs. Pittsburgh, Sept. 9
A few hours before kickoff in Columbus, the Nittany Lions will be looking for revenge against in-state rival Pitt. The first meeting between these two programs in 16 years provided some drama a year ago when Trace McSorley drove the Penn State offense down to the 30-yard line before he was intercepted in the final minutes of a 42-39 loss. After a season opener against Akron, the Saturday afternoon game in Happy Valley will give McSorley & Co. a chance to prove that they are picking up where they left off at the end of last season.
Michigan at Wisconsin, Nov. 18
If both teams hold their form throughout the regular season, this will be the top cross-divisional game of the year. The Badgers -- favorites in the West -- will get a chance to prove they're worthy competition for the East Division and pick up an eye-catching victory on a schedule that doesn't have many other opponents that rise above pedestrian. Michigan has to make this trip one week before hosting the rival Buckeyes. A win over Wisconsin would give the Wolverines a little more wiggle room in their championship hopes if they end up splitting with Penn State and Ohio State.
It doesn’t take long to think of college football games that hinge on a major special teams play. Whether it’s a last-second field-goal attempt or a field-flipping punt return, a strong third phase is usually the difference that can turn one or two losses into wins. A weak one can quickly turn a couple wins into losses.
In the past two weeks, we’ve reviewed the Big Ten’s cream of the crop at key position groups on both sides of the ball. We wrap up our list of the league’s best units by taking a look at special teams.
Best of the best: According to ESPN’s special teams efficiency rankings, only two teams (Stanford and Memphis) were more effective on special teams in 2016 than Michigan. The Wolverines led the Big Ten in several special teams stats. Despite losing do-it-all kicker Kenny Allen and do-it-all returner Jabrill Peppers, they should be a formidable group again this fall.
Quinn Nordin will take over placekicking duties for Allen, and the big-legged sophomore made a good early impression by knocking down a 48-yard field goal with plenty of room to spare during the spring game. A whole host of young athletes are in the running to take over for Peppers in the return game. And as electric as he was, Michigan's best plays while lining up against a kicker came on blocks. The Wolverines blocked a combined seven kicks and punts a year ago – more than any other power five school. This year, special teams coach Chris Partridge said the goal is to focus more on breaking big returns than blocking kicks.
Next in line: Penn State returns a trio of talented specialists in the kicking game. Redshirt senior Tyler Davis tied for the league's best field-goal percentage by hitting 22 of 24 attempts last season, although his longest attempt was only 40 yards out. Blake Gillikin set a freshman school record by averaging 42.8 yards per punt, including 13 attempts that traveled at least 50 yards. And Joey Julius added an extra dimension to the Nittany Lions’ kickoff coverage by being as punishing of a tackler as any kicker in recent memory. With the athletes to make big plays in the return game, Penn State is set up well for all angles of special teams.
Wisconsin is another team to watch, especially as the Badgers expect to get placekicker Rafael Gaglianone back after the Brazilian missed most of 2016 with an injury.
Don’t sleep on: Iowa was among the league’s most efficient special teams units a year ago. Assistant coach LeVar Woods said this spring that he’s had starters lining up outside his office to ask about playing on special teams this offseason. The Hawkeyes have to replace several key figures -- most notably returner Desmond King -- but the focus on that area of the field and the dividends it paid last year bode well for Kirk Ferentz’s team.
Developing the deep threat was a common theme among Big Ten teams this spring. As the conference continue to leave its reputation for boring offenses in the dust, a pack of talented pass-catchers should have chances to shine this season.
Most of the league’s top teams return starters under center this fall -- and most of those starters have some healthy competition to keep them honest during the summer workouts. This week we’ll be highlighting the best groups on the offensive side of the ball at several positions as well as some other teams and players that are worth watching closely. Next up is a look at the best receiving corps in the conference.
Best of the best: Penn State is stacked with veteran options in the passing game this fall. Seniors DaeSean Hamilton, Saeed Blacknall and Mike Gesicki will set the pace for the passing game and provide plenty of size as well. Hamilton has played in 40 college games already and has catches in 38 of them. Gesicki is a candidate to be the league’s best tight end in 2017. He had five touchdowns and 48 catches as a junior last year.
There is rising talent in Happy Valley as well. Juwan Johnson’s spring might have been as promising of a step forward as any player at any position in the Big Ten. His 6-foot-4, 218-pound frame provides yet another big target for quarterback Trace McSorley through the air.
Next in line: Indiana might not have the depth at wide receiver that rosters like Ohio State's and Michigan's (both teams could end up with very dangerous passing attacks) can claim, but the Hoosiers have a one-two punch that could be as tough to cover as any in the Big Ten if both are moving at full speed. Nick Westbrook and Simmie Cobbs Jr. are both tall and fast and able to bring down most balls thrown in their vicinity.
Cobbs missed almost all of 2016 with an ankle injury after racking up more than 1,000 receiving yards the previous season. Westbrook had 995 receiving yards in Cobbs’ absence last season, which is more than any other receiver returning to the Big Ten next season. Indiana could also add a speedy smaller option if J-Shun Harris gets healthy after missing both of the past two years with ACL tears.
Don’t sleep on: Nebraska features a good mix of experience and young studs. If all of them hit their potential, they could have more options than most defenses are equipped to handle. The group starts with De’Mornay Pierson-El and Stanley Morgan Jr., both of whom impressed coaches this spring with increased speed and the way they handled a transition into leadership roles.
The Huskers are hoping that pair will be complemented by some incoming freshmen with impressive resumes. Keyshawn Johnson Jr. and Jaevon McQuitty didn’t get an opportunity to do much during their first semester on campus. Joining them will be blue-chip prospect Tyjon Lindsey. If a couple of the young guys are ready to contribute, new quarterback Tanner Lee will be able to spread the ball. One concern that could slow them down is the roster’s lack of experience at tight end.
The Big Ten may not break its lengthy drought of sending a quarterback into the first round of the NFL draft with this year’s crop, but that doesn’t mean there’s any lack of talent at the position. Most of the league’s top teams return starters under center this fall -- and most of those starters have some healthy competition to keep them honest during the summer workouts.
This week we’ll be highlighting the best groups on the offensive side of the ball at several positions as well as some other teams and players that are worth watching closely. We start the week with a review of the best quarterback depth charts in the conference heading into 2017.
Best of the best: Ohio State returns the most productive quarterback in program history to operate an offense that promises to let him unleash some deeper throws this year. J.T. Barrett has accounted for exactly 100 touchdowns heading into his senior season. New offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson, who previously had to stop Barrett when the Buckeyes played Indiana, said he thought the veteran leader made good strides on hitting longer throws in spring practice.
Barrett is a candidate to be the conference’s top player next season, but it’s Ohio State’s depth at quarterback that nudges them ahead of others to the top of this list. Backups Joe Burrow and Dwayne Haskins both have the skills to be starters. They threw three touchdown passes each in the spring game in Columbus, setting up what could be the most entertaining backup quarterback battle in college football this year.
Next in line: Penn State and Michigan both deserve mention here. Trace McSorley finished out his first year as a full-time starter with 12 touchdown passes in three games, including a conference title win and a trip to the Rose Bowl. He should have the weapons around him for another record-setting year in Happy Valley. The Nittany Lions’ coaching staff also seemed pleased with the level of competition redshirt sophomore Tommy Stevens provided as McSorley’s understudy.
The situation isn’t much different in Ann Arbor. Wilton Speight remains the starter after helping lead Michigan and its offense to another 10-win season in 2016. Speight separated himself as the leader of a team that has a lot of pieces to replace next fall and a calm, confident presence on the field. He may not be the most physically talented quarterback on the roster, though. Redshirt freshman Brandon Peters showed he has both strength and touch during the spring season.
Don’t sleep on: Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson. The third-year starter made a significant jump forward between his first and second seasons leading the offense. If he can continue his upward trajectory again in 2017, the Wildcats will have as good a chance as any team to unseat Wisconsin as the West Division champions. Thorson threw for 22 touchdowns and nine interceptions last season. He also showed he has the potential to make plays with his feet, although he took off less often a year ago than during his rookie season. Top target Austin Carr is gone, but Thorson should get some help in replacing him from Oregon transfer Jalen Brown and the rest of a maturing receiver group.
The impact of a recruiting battle isn’t felt until the prospect hits the field for whichever team he chose. The team that missed out is often left with a void that the prospect could have filled and the team that won is left gloating if he pans out.
Since recruiting battles happen all the time within the Big Ten, there will likely be a few big names on the field this season that teams wish they could have landed. Here is a look at past recruiting battles within the conference and who they’re impacting.
RB Karan Higdon, Michigan
Higdon was headed to Iowa in the 2015 recruiting class until Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh swooped in and got him to commit to Michigan. Higdon was at the center of a few battles as Michigan was also pursuing running back Mike Weber, who eventually signed with Ohio State after debating between the Buckeyes and Michigan.
Iowa losing out on Higdon stings because the Hawkeyes ranked 64th in the nation in rushing yards last season and 71st in rushing touchdowns. The Hawkeyes also must replace Leshun Daniels Jr., who rushed for 1,058 yards last season.
Haskins and Jones both decommitted from Maryland and flipped to Ohio State during the 2016 cycle in what ended up being a big sting for the Terps. While Maryland is headed in the right direction, these two would have been huge additions to the roster.
Having Haskins in his second season at quarterback would have been a big help to Walt Bell’s offense and could have accelerated the process. The staff has landed some nice pieces, including ESPN 300 quarterback Kasim Hill in the 2017 class.
The Buckeyes have recruited well at quarterback and will have Haskins in the mix as the backup this season.
WR K.J. Hamler, Penn State
For quite some time in his recruitment, it seemed as though Hamler would be headed to Michigan State. An in-state prospect in the 2017 class, Michigan State was hot on his trail.
Needing receivers and playmakers on offense, Hamler would have been a big addition to the Spartans’ offense, but a late push by the Nittany Lions swung him in their favor.
Penn State coaches put in a lot of work to reel in Hamler and the staff eventually won out. While Michigan State did land a few other receivers in the class, none were as explosive as Hamler.
The shifty receiver sustained an ACL injury his senior high school season, but if he fully recovers, Hamler could be a big playmaker for the Nittany Lions.
WR Tyjon Lindsey, Nebraska
Lindsey’s recruitment in the 2017 cycle was a bit odd, to say the least. The 5-foot-9, 180-pound receiver was committed to Ohio State with Las Vegas (Nevada) Bishop Gorman teammates Haskell Garrett and Tate Martell until Lindsey abruptly decommitted and switched to Nebraska.
By all accounts, Lindsey seemed solid to the Buckeyes for most of his commitment. Nebraska started making a big push as the process got closer to signing day, ultimately leading to his commitment.
Ohio State has options on the roster, but Lindsey would have been a good fit and a big help on new offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson’s offense.
ATH Ambry Thomas, Michigan
Thomas is a dynamic prospect who can play offense or defense and was heavily considering Michigan State as well as Michigan. He ultimately landed with Michigan, but would have been a much-needed addition to the Michigan State roster.
The Spartans could use help on both offense and defense, and Thomas is the type of player who realistically could have had an impact both sides in East Lansing. He is a local prospect and was one of the highest-ranked prospects in the state, so not only did it sting for Michigan State not to get him on the field on their side, but it also meant losing an in-state battle to their top rival.
Urban Meyer waited only a few minutes after his Ohio State team finished its 2016 season to promise the offense would be better next year. After an embarrassing 31-0 shutout loss to Clemson in the College Football Playoff, Meyer threw some conviction behind the sentiment that his program's passing game had to improve.
"We will become a good passing team, we will," Meyer said at the time. "Next year."
Since then, the Buckeyes have made some tangible progress toward meeting that goal. They’re not alone among their Big Ten brethren either, which should be a scary thought for defensive coordinators in the Midwest and beyond.
Ohio State -- despite an air attack that didn’t live up to the head coach's standards -- scored 66 touchdowns in 2016. Michigan and Penn State each matched their East Division foe with the same number. For the first time in league history, three different Big Ten teams topped 500 total points. There’s reason to believe all three could be more prolific in 2017. Could next fall be a record-setting year for scoring in the Big Ten? If spring ball is any indication, there’s a pretty good chance.
All three quarterbacks from those programs return as seasoned veterans, and all three have some exciting new toys at their disposal.
Trace McSorley and the reigning champion Nittany Lions have a crew of tall, rangy receivers that can keep defenses from loading up too much to stop star running back Saquon Barkley. At the top of that list after the spring was 6-foot-4 redshirt sophomore Juwan Johnson, who was the most improved player on the team according to his coaches and has a chance to be a breakout star next fall.
At Michigan, Wilton Speight raved about the two newest additions to his passing game. He called early enrollees Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black "pretty freaky" and "special" after just a few practices. Peoples-Jones was one of the top 25 high school players in the country last season and should be able to help the Wolverines' depleted two-deep right away. It was Black who turned the most heads this spring, with a touchdown catch in the spring game and an impressive performance in Rome.
Ohio State's J.T. Barrett has a strong cast of receivers, too, but his biggest upgrade comes in the form of new offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson. The former Indiana coach is working to restore Ohio State's deep-ball threat to the level it reached in 2014 when the Buckeyes scored 672 points (the highest total of any Big Ten team in at least the past 20 years) en route to a national championship.
"There is some enhancement going on now," Meyer told reporters in March. "We're not changing, we're enhancing what we do. If it was broken, we'd have to change it."
Compounding those high scores will be the fact that the most inexperienced groups on some of the league’s best teams are in the secondary. Ohio State has to replace three first-round picks in its defensive backfield. All four of the starters from a Michigan back end that had the best passing defense in the country in 2016 are gone. Penn State’s group suffered a blow this spring when top cornerback John Reid reportedly suffered a potential season-ending injury. The talent is still there, but youth usually leads to some mistakes.
The West Division will still provide some of the defense-first, slugfest-style football that one thinks of when talking about the Big Ten. Wisconsin should be stingy as usual and Northwestern will be able to ride the reliable workhorse Justin Jackson.
Elsewhere, though, some of the conference’s weaker offenses should be able to take some steps toward contributing to an influx of points. Purdue (24.6 points per game in 2016) hired Jeff Brohm after he wrapped up his season in Western Kentucky with the highest-scoring offense in the nation. Maryland (25.8) has the playmakers to make another jump under offensive coordinator Walt Bell and his fast-paced attack. Receiver Mikey Dudek should be able to help Illinois (19.7), too, if he stays healthy for a full season.
The Big Ten climbed back into the conversation as one of college football’s toughest conferences, especially in the East Division, over the past several years by adding speed and innovative coaches. It’s no surprise that the points are starting to stack up, and they could be coming in some unprecedented bunches in 2017.
Defending Big Ten champion Penn State is loaded with experience on offense. Quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley are preseason Heisman Trophy contenders. They'll play behind a veteran offensive line and with a standout tight end in Mike Gesicki.
The one question about that unit going into the spring was at wide receiver. Not necessarily in depth of talent, as the Nittany Lions bring back accomplished players Saeed Blacknail and DaeSean Hamilton at the position. The question was more along the lines of who would become the true No. 1 wideout, someone who could replace the production of Chris Godwin?
The answer to that question might be one of the biggest breakout players in the Big Ten this spring: Juwan Johnson.
The redshirt sophomore created major buzz around the program all spring, earning raves from coaches and teammates and winning Penn State's most improve offensive player award. He showed the public what the fuss was about with seven catches for 81 yards in Saturday's Blue-White game.
Johnson played mainly on special teams last season, though he did start on offense against Purdue. He finished the year with two catches for 70 yards.
"I've been patient the past two years," Johnson told reporters Saturday. "It's time for me to step up and play a role on the team."
It shouldn't come as a surprise that Johnson is ready to make an impact. He's a former ESPN 300 recruit who's listed at an impressive 6-foot-4 and 218 pounds. He could become a top target for McSorley, who often sought out Godwin (59 catches for 982 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2016) during key situations.
"He has just has taken a very mature approach, a very aggressive approach all offseason," Penn State coach James Franklin said. "He's playing with a lot of confidence right now, and I think we all know he's got some special physical abilities. It's all kind of coming together for him right now."
Here's a look at some other breakout players from around the league this spring now that every team has wrapped up its practice sessions until fall camp (in alphabetical order):
Ohio State CB Damon Arnette: Whoever emerges in the secondary for the Buckeyes is a good bet to become a star. Arnette had some struggles as a redshirt freshman last season but performed very well all spring to become the front-runner to start opposite Denzel Ward. Given how much pure talent Ohio State has at the position, that's saying something.
Wisconsin WR Quintez Cephus: The sophomore -- who had four catches for for 94 yards as a true freshman -- turned in some big practices for the Badgers this spring. It was an emotional spring for him after his father was shot and killed. Cephus is in line to replace Robert Wheelwright as the team's No. 2 receiver.
Michigan LB/S Khaleke Hudson: It's unfair to compare Hudson to Jabrill Peppers. But Hudson might well be the guy who replaces Hudson at the Viper position, one where he'll be asked to do many of the same things Peppers excelled at. The early returns have been positive, as Hudson looked like a playmaker during an active spring game performance.
Minnesota S Jacob Huff: The junior has no career starts but has played as a backup the past two seasons. He showed up in a major way this spring at a position of need for the Golden Gophers. "All he does is make plays," head coach P.J. Fleck said of Huff.
Michigan State CB/WR Justin Layne: He made an impact as a true freshman in the Spartans' secondary, even returning an interception for a touchdown. Layne played on offense and defense during the spring game, catching a touchdown pass at receiver. Could he be a true two-way star this fall?
Nebraska slot receiver JD Spielman: The MVP of the scout team offense last year, Spielman looks ready to contribute where it counts this season. He impressed coaches most of the spring and went out and grabbed a 30-yard touchdown among his four catches in the spring game.
Indiana TE Ian Thomas: New offensive coordinator Mike DeBord intends to use the tight ends more than the Hoosiers have in previous seasons, and Thomas should be the biggest beneficiary of that strategy. A standout in junior college, Thomas had only three catches last season but snagged a touchdown in the spring game, a potential sign of things to come.
Iowa RB Toren Young: Akrum Wadley is the No. 1 tailback, but the Hawkeyes like A) spreading the carries around and B) occasionally putting Wadley out in space. Young and Toks Akinribade are both in the mix for work this fall, but it was Young who ran for 96 yards and a touchdown in the spring game. "I liked the energy he ran with and the toughness he ran with, and he's pretty much been doing that all spring," head coach Kirk Ferentz said.
The Big Ten had a banner year in 2016, with four teams jockeying for spots in the College Football Playoff until the final days of the regular season.
The postseason didn’t go so well for the league, as only one of its four New Year’s Six bowl participants (Wisconsin) brought home a victory. That brought out the usual Big Ten skeptics who wondered if the conference had been overrated all along and whether 2016 was just a fluke.
There’s no guarantee of a repeat of last year’s success in 2017. But there is one simple yet large reason to be very excited about the league’s fortunes this fall and beyond: the Big Ten has the best roster of head coaches of any conference in America.
A grand statement like that naturally requires lots of evidence to back it up. So here goes.
Start with Ohio State's Urban Meyer. He’s no worse than one of the two best coaches in college football, with only Alabama’s Nick Saban as serious competition. Meyer has three national titles, the highest winning percentage among active coaches (.851 -- third-highest all time among those who coached at least 10 years) -- and an absurd 61-6 record with the Buckeyes. Enough said.
Michigan's Jim Harbaugh also belongs on the short list of best coaches in the land. Though he has never won a national title, he’s the master of the program turnaround. He’s gone 32-7 in his last three seasons in college, including Stanford, and was the NFL coach of the year during his time in San Francisco. Whether you like his online shtick or find it annoying, dude can coach 'em up as well as anyone.
Penn State's James Franklin joined the ranks of the elite coaches last year by leading the Nittany Lions to a surprise Big Ten title. Franklin had already worked wonders at Vanderbilt, of all places, and he silenced his doubters en route to winning Sporting News national coach of the year honors in 2016.
Though Michigan State is going through some turbulent times right now after a 3-9 debacle, Mark Dantonio has firmly established himself as one of the top coaches. His Spartans won at least 11 games five times in the six years prior to last season and made the playoff in 2015.
That’s four cream-of-the-crop coaches right there. What other league can claim that?
The ACC might come the closest, with Clemson’s Dabo Swinney and Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher owning national titles and Louisville’s Bobby Petrino being one of the top offensive minds around. But unless you’re buying into North Carolina’s Larry Fedora or Virginia Tech’s Justin Fuente as elite, the list pretty much stops at three.
The Big 12 has Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops, TCU’s Gary Patterson and legendary Kansas State boss Bill Snyder. Maybe first-year Texas coach Tom Herman lives up to the hype. Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy has done good work but hasn’t quite reached the level of the Big Ten’s top four.
In the Pac-12, Washington’s Chris Petersen belongs on any short list of top coaches. Stanford’s David Shaw is highly accomplished, and Colorado’s Mike McIntyre won several national coach of the year honors last year. The jury is still out on USC’s Clay Helton, though he did beat Penn State in the Rose Bowl.
What about the SEC, you ask? Saban rules, obviously. But who’s the second-best coach in that league? It might be Florida’s Jim McElwain. Or Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen. Would either school’s fan base trade them for Harbaugh? You betcha.
It’s not just the top tier that makes the Big Ten coaching roster so special, either. Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst is quickly rising up the ladder toward elite, having gone 21-6 in two years at his alma mater. His middling 19-19 record at Pitt before returning to Madison must be considered in relation to the mess he inherited there.
Chryst is also a perfect fit for the Badgers, just as Pat Fitzgerald is at Northwestern and Kirk Ferentz is for Iowa. Fitzgerald’s 11-year run in Evanston seems unusually long except when compared to Ferentz, who’s going into Year 19 with the Hawkeyes while showing signs of slowing down.
Nebraska's Mike Riley is one of the most respected coaches around, and while it’s fair to question whether he was the right fit for the Cornhuskers, he has won 10 of his last 14 games in Lincoln. Illinois' Lovie Smith has plenty to prove as a college coach but had a strong track record in the NFL.
The Big Ten also added two of the hottest young coaches in the country this offseason in Minnesota's P.J. Fleck, who led Western Michigan to a 13-0 record and Cotton Bowl appearance last year, and Purdue's Jeff Brohm, who went 30-10 at Western Kentucky with one of the nation’s most dynamic offenses.The story is still being written for Indiana's Tom Allen, Maryland's D.J. Durkin and Rutgers' Chris Ash, though all three were outstanding defensive coordinators.
Add it all up, and you’ve got the best lineup of coaches in any conference.
“I think it’s outstanding,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ve gotten a huge commitment from all of our teams to do whatever it takes to be successful. It’s a special time to be a part of the Big Ten.”
On Wednesday's spring teleconference between reporters and Big Ten coaches, Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald leaned into a familiar football saw.
"There's an old saying out there that when you have a quarterback, you have a chance," Fitzgerald said.
If there's truth in that cliché, then it stands to reason that the Big Ten has a chance of being very good in 2017.
The vast majority of league teams already know who their quarterback will be this fall and feel good about it. Most remaining quarterback competitions are coming into focus. If having a proven signal-caller is a good indication of success, then the conference's best teams from last season should be primed to contend again.
The four Big Ten clubs that were in the playoff mix last December -- Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin -- all return their starters from a year ago.
J.T. Barrett didn't finish strong for the Buckeyes and drew some criticism for his downfield throws. But he's still a two-time Big Ten quarterback of the year with a top-five Heisman Trophy finish on his résumé. Penn State's Trace McSorley should have won the league's quarterback of the year award last year and will enter 2017 as a Heisman candidate. Michigan's Wilton Speight showed promise his first year as a starter last season and, according to Jim Harbaugh, has taken a step forward with his understanding of the game and the Wolverines' system. Wisconsin's Alex Hornibrook is the least accomplished of the quartet, as a redshirt sophomore, but the Badgers are confident in his ability.
Other returnees include Indiana's Richard Lagow, a strong-armed pocket passer capable of putting up some big numbers in his second year as a starter; Purdue's David Blough, who led the league in passing yards and touchdowns last year and who should improve his decision-making under new head coach Jeff Brohm; and Northwestern's Clayton Thorson, who somewhat quietly threw for more than 3,000 yards as a sophomore and continues to get better.
"He's shown absolutely amazing growth as a leader," Fitzgerald said. "His confidence is at an all-time high."
Some teams that went into spring with ostensible competitions have all but settled on their guy.
Michigan State's Mark Dantonio said in the winter that sophomore Brian Lewerke was the leading candidate to start. Lewerke solidified that by playing well this spring, bulking up to 215 pounds and not getting much competition from redshirt freshman Messiah deWeaver, who rarely practiced because of back issues.
"He's bigger and stronger and throws the ball in great rhythm," Dantonio said of Lewerke. "He's clearly the starter, and I think that's warranted."
Lovie Smith called Chayce Crouch his starting quarterback at Illinois before spring ball began. Even though Crouch was held out of contact drills while recovering from offseason surgery, he still has Smith's full backing.
"He's the undisputed leader of our football team," Smith said of the junior, who threw 32 passes in 2016.
Rutgers began the offseason with an open audition under center, but Giovanni Rescigno -- who started the final five games last year -- has fended off challengers. Scarlet Knights coach Chris Ash called Rescigno's improvement this spring "a pleasant surprise" and called him the team's "clear No. 1."
That leaves just four teams currently undecided, at least officially, on a starter. An alphabetical rundown:
Iowa: Quarterbacks coach Ken O'Keefe called the race between Nathan Stanley and Tyler Wiegers "neck and neck" on Wednesday. But Stanley was the backup to C.J. Beathard as a true freshman, and most believe he'll win the job.
Maryland: D.J. Durkin says there's still a three-way competition raging, but North Carolina transfer Caleb Henderson seems like the safe bet to take the snaps in the opener at Texas.
Minnesota: This might be the one truly wide-open battle in the league, as there's very little experience on hand for first-year coach P.J. Fleck. Senior Conor Rhoda and sophomore Demry Croft appear to be the leading candidates, with early enrollee Tanner Morgan a dark horse. Fleck said he likely won't name a starter until training camp.
Nebraska: For the first time since they entered the Big Ten, the Cornhuskers don't have an obvious starting quarterback lined up. Mike Riley said he has split the reps evenly between Tulane transfer Tanner Lee and redshirt freshman Patrick O'Brien; both will get a chance to shine at Saturday's spring game.
"We've been through it a few times in our life," Riley said. "One thing it does is, it kind of keeps an edge there."
Experience isn't everything. McSorley had never started a college game before leading Penn State to the Big Ten title last year. But coaches would usually prefer certainty at the game's most important position. The veteran returning talent and coaches' confidence in their options this spring would seem to bode well for the league's chances.
It's been a while since the ol' Big Ten mailbag showed its face around these parts. But with college basketball leaving the stage and spring practice waning, it's time to once again take your questions. You can send them any time via Twitter or by emailing ESPNBigTenMailbag@gmail.com.
And we're back ...
— Jason Draper (@JD5330) April 11, 2017
Brian Bennett: I loved Mike Riley's hiring of Bob Diaco to be the Cornhuskers' defensive coordinator. I covered Diaco when he was at Cincinnati and Notre Dame, where he put together some outstanding defenses. He's extremely quirky, but players respond to Diaco's fiery attitude. And the dude can coach.
The question is, does he have the right personnel for his 3-4 scheme? I'd expect the secondary to be one of the best in the Big Ten with returning players such as Chris Jones, Joshua Kalu and Kieron Williams. The front seven is another story. Nebraska wasn't a great pass-rushing team last season, and I wonder if it has the run-stuffing defensive linemen and playmaking linebackers to make this unit truly special. I'm not expecting a dominant, top-20-type defense this season but would look for some strides made and a leap forward perhaps in 2018.
— Justin <9 (@MrHooterz) April 11, 2017
Brian Bennett: It could be challenging. Minnesota has had between four and six healthy offensive linemen this spring, which is a giant red flag. There's almost no experience at quarterback. The roster is very young, and this is a major culture change with an entirely new staff.
The situation is far different than when P.J. Fleck took over Western Michigan, but his first season in Kalamazoo resulted in a 1-11 record for the Broncos. So it took some time for him to work his magic. The Golden Gophers won nine games last season and have some dynamic playmakers at running back in Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks, so this is not a major rebuild. Still, I think it very likely could be a transition year.
— Brett <ú<ø (@BrettGHughes) April 11, 2017
Brian Bennett: I've thought for a while now that Akrum Wadley was Iowa's most explosive running back. After he ran for 1,081 yards on just 168 carries last season, it will be really intriguing to see what he can do consistently with more carries. Keeping weight on has been a problem for Wadley in the past, but he should be beyond that now as a senior.
He might never be a bell cow a la Shonn Greene, but Wadley should be one of the Big Ten's best running backs this season and could top 1,500 yards. Stay tuned: I hope to write more about him soon.
@BennettESPN Assuming PSU has another great season, where does Joe Moorehead end up? Think it is a power 5 (or ND) type of job or something else?
— LeftyMarlins (@LeftyMarlins) April 11, 2017
Brian Bennett: Unlike other coordinators, Joe Moorhead actually has head-coaching experience. And he was highly successful at it, albeit at a lower level (Fordham).
That might make him an even more attractive candidate for a school looking for a head coach next winter. Yet landing at a place like Notre Dame seems like a bit of a stretch. It's still fairly rare for coordinators with no strong ties to a school to suddenly become head coaches at traditional powers. Instead, I'd look to the paths of a couple of other Big Ten coordinators who were hot commodities: Tom Herman, who took over at Houston before eventually getting the Texas gig, and Pat Narduzzi, who was hired by Pitt. Think mid- to low-tier Power 5 jobs or a strong Group of 5 program.
@BennettESPN Will Maryland make a jump from last year in with the QB position? Caleb Henderson looks like a big upgrade.
— bob jacobs (@BobJacobs2000) April 11, 2017
Brian Bennett: Perry Hills wasn't bad last season for the Terrapins, finishing second in the Big Ten behind McSorley in pass efficiency while completing 61.9 percent of his passes. But he also threw for less than 1,500 yards in 11 games, so he wasn't exactly Boomer Esiason.
Caleb Henderson, the North Carolina transfer, is a thickly built, strong dude who was once an ESPN 300 recruit. He simply got buried on the depth chart in Chapel Hill behind a potential first-rounder, Mitch Trubisky. He should be able to sling it down the field and stretch defenses vertically more than Hills did, and he can bowl people over running it as well. After sitting out last season as a transfer and learning the system, he should have a leg up in the team's quarterback competition.
Henderson still hasn't proved anything in college football. But with him and incoming freshman Kasim Hill, it sure looks as though Maryland's quarterback play, which has been uninspiring for a while now, could soon go up a few notches.
Last week on the blog, we took a look at the reasons why several contenders would win the Big Ten title in 2017, including Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin. We also examined some sleeper teams.
It was all very optimistic, as things tend to be this time of year. Now it's time to play the role of pessimist. We're here to tell you why your team won't win the Big Ten title in 2017.
The country-pop band Big & Rich will perform before the Scarlet Knights' spring game next month. Sorry, Piscataway. After a dismal 2-10 season, it's going to be a long time before any championships are comin' ... to your city.
Jeff Brohm will make things interesting and exciting in West Lafayette again. Eventually. Bear Bryant couldn't lead this team, which has won two Big Ten games in the past three years, to a title this season.
Hey, this is a program that's won two of the past four league championships, so it wouldn't be a total shock to see the Spartans rebound from 3-9. Except that the program currently is mired in turmoil. There's going to be a very strange vibe around the spring game, which might be the first time we find out officially who's still on the roster while a sexual assault and Title IX investigation swirls. The trend line here is not good.
The Illini have some young talent coming in, but they may be hard pressed to surpass last year's 3-9 mark in Lovie Smith's second year. The two-deep was razor thin this spring, and basically the entire defensive line must be replaced. Things may get worse before they get better in Champaign.
You've got to like the direction of D.J. Durkin's program after he brought in a very solid recruiting class. Again, though, we're talking about 2017, and this team is going to be very young and without a proven quarterback. Plus, there should be a five-year mandatory championship probation for wearing these uniforms.
The Hoosiers have thrown a scare into several of the league's best teams the past couple of years. But it has almost always just been a scare, which is why Tom Allen is using the slogan "Breakthrough" this year. Even if Indiana finds a way to win some more of those close games thanks to an improved defense, it just doesn't have enough talent to get to the top of a loaded East Division.
Crazier things have happened for the boys in purple. Like 1995, for instance. Or actually making -- and winning -- a game in this year's NCAA tournament. The Wildcats will have one of the league's best backfield duos in Clayton Thorson and Justin Jackson. Yet they've been just a bit too inconsistent to believe they can make a championship run.
Every day is elite in P.J. Fleck's universe. But with a very young team, no experience at quarterback and a brand new coaching staff, this year could prove mediocre at best. And to win a title, the Golden Gophers need to beat Wisconsin again before we all die.
Maybe this is the year. (Note: I copied and pasted that sentence from every preseason article written about the Cornhuskers since 2002). It's hard to win a championship with four losses , and that's exactly how many games Nebraska has dropped in seven of the eight past years. Where's the top-shelf, All-America-type talent? Will the team show up in the big games away from home?
There's a new starting quarterback and hardly any receivers anybody's heard of. Penn State and Ohio State are among the crossover games (though both are at Kinnick). The Hawkeyes have to go to Wisconsin. There's enough here for Iowa to win eight games and trigger a $500,000 bonus for Kirk Ferentz, but hide your eyes at bowl time.
Eighteen starters are gone -- 18! If anyone besides Urban Meyer can get that much youth up to speed, it's Jim Harbaugh, and his four-hour practices will age anyone quickly. Still, that's an uphill battle. And last time we checked, Ohio State is still on the schedule.
Speaking of the Buckeyes, it's always dumb to bet against them winning the Big Ten. Except that Ohio State has somehow won only won one Big Ten championship in the past six years. Meyer has lost only three league games while in Columbus, but they have come at the most inopportune times. The offense also has to prove it can throw the ball more than a few yards downfield.
The Badgers are like a metronome. You can set your watch to their consistency. They're the West favorites until someone proves otherwise. But can they beat whomever comes out of the East? They lost to Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State last year. The offense always seems to come up a bit short in those huge games. Alex Hornibrook is promising, but he's not Russell Wilson.
The returning experience is outstanding and the Trace McSorley-Saquon Barkley combo is as good as it gets anywhere. Yet the Nittany Lions also caught some breaks last year with their schedule, with how that Ohio State game turned out and the East tiebreaker situation. This year, they have to go to the Horseshoe, not to mention the viper pit known as Kinnick Stadium. Michigan at home will be no picnic. Defending a title is much tougher than coming out of nowhere to win one.
Every team has question marks when it enters spring practice, but Penn State might have fewer than just about any team in the Big Ten.
As head coach James Franklin mentioned at his spring preview news conference on Tuesday, the defending Big Ten champions return 99 percent of their rushing yards, 73 percent of their receiving yards, 72 percent of their tackles and 64 percent of their tackles for loss from last year's Rose Bowl squad. And they've got two Heisman Trophy candidates in running back Saquon Barkley and quarterback Trace McSorley.
The biggest challenge for Franklin may be making sure his team stays humble, hungry and hard working.
"Now you take all those things, and you combine them with the experience that we gained, I think you've got a chance to do something special," he said.
Here's a look at what to expect from the Nittany Lions this spring:
Spring schedule: Practice begins on Wednesday morning. The annual Blue-White game will be held on April 22 at 3 p.m. ET inside Beaver Stadium.
What's new: Not all that much. Franklin was able to keep his coaching staff intact despite last year's success. Sixteen starters are back, making Penn State suddenly one of the most experienced teams in the Big Ten. There will be plenty of new faces this spring, however, as veterans like Barkley, linebacker Jason Cabinda, safety Marcus Allen, tight end Mike Gesicki and others will have limited reps as young players get a chance to step forward.
Three things we want to see:
1. A new go-to wide receiver emerging: Chris Godwin's decision to enter the NFL draft leaves the offense in search of a true No. 1 wideout. Luckily, there are plenty of candidates.
Saeed Blacknall is a veteran who's had big moments but has lacked consistency. Could he be ready to truly break out?
"We expect him to have a huge spring and a huge offseason and go and have a monster year this year and stay healthy," Franklin said.
2. What does the center position look like?: At long last, Penn State now has depth and talent on the offensive line, especially as young players who redshirted continue to develop. The big question there this spring is who replaces Brian Gaia at the all-important center spot.
Franklin said he would start spring by moving guard Connor McGovern over. Ryan Bates is another candidate, as well as Zach Simpson. If one player excels in the role quickly, it will simplify the other roles and allow the unit to build solid chemistry.
3. New pass-rushers: Last year's starting defensive ends, Garrett Sickels and Evan Schwan, are both gone. So, too, is linebacker Brandon Bell. They took with them 16 of the team's 40 sacks a year ago. Everyone's eager to see redshirt Shane Simmons this spring, as well as classmates Daniel Joseph and Shaka Toney. Torrence Brown and Shareef Miller played a lot as backups last year. Defensive line has been a strength in State College the last few years, and if the young guys are ready, the Nittany Lions might not miss a beat here again in 2017.
Spring practice is still in its early stages at several Big Ten schools, but it’s never too early to preview the conference race. This week, we’re breaking down the top contenders with the top-five factors that could make them champions by the time December rolls around.
Speaking of champions, we're taking a look at the defending champs today: the Penn State Nittany Lions.
1. They have the best player in the league: Saquon Barkley is a beast. There's no better word for it. He was the Big Ten's offensive player of the year, he shredded USC's defense in the Rose Bowl and he ran a hand-timed, sub 4.4 40-yard dash in winter workouts. He accumulated nearly 1,900 total yards last season with 22 total touchdowns, and with two years of experience under his belt, he should be even better in 2017. Barkley is a serious Heisman Trophy candidate, and he's the type of player who can drag his team to a title.
2. They might also have the best quarterback in the league: Going into last season, and even deep into it, there wasn't much debate that Ohio State's J.T. Barrett was the Big Ten's top quarterback. But Trace McSorley had a better season than Barrett. So much so that the league awarding Barrett its quarterback of the year trophy now looks pretty silly. McSorley threw for 3,614 yards and 29 touchdowns, with only eight interceptions. He got better as the season went along and was at his best in the Big Ten championship game, when he destroyed Wisconsin's elite defense for 384 passing yards and four scores. With Barkley and McSorley in the same backfield, running Joe Moorhead's high-paced offense, this will continue to be a pick-your-poison situation for opposing defenses.
3. The talent is getting better: It's still pretty amazing what James Franklin and his staff were able to do last season with such a young roster, as Penn State finally began to emerge out of the sanctions era. The kicker is that not only are several key players back, but the young ones who are coming in might be even more talented. Franklin has recruited very well, and former problem areas like the offensive line are rounding into legitimate upper-tier Big Ten units. This is illustrated by the team's testing during winter conditioning. Strength coach Dwight Galt told reporters recently that the Lions had two players run in the 4.4 second range in the 40 back in 2014. Now they have five players, including Barkley, in the 4.3s. Other benchmarks like, well, the bench press are the highest they've been in years as well. The weight room isn't the same as the football field, but this program is assembling more and more high-level athletes.
4. Experienced secondary: Penn State's defense has some question marks up front. But the back end boasts plenty of experience. Three starters return, including the underrated Marcus Allen at safety and cornerbacks John Reid and Grant Haley. One of the safety spots is up for grabs this spring, but Troy Apke played in every game as a backup last season. Division rivals Ohio State and Michigan will be basically starting from scratch with their defensive backs in 2017, though they have a lot of talent to work with.
5. Hunger: The Nittany Lions accomplished an awful lot in 2016, but they also fell just short enough of their ultimate goals to still be hungry for more this fall. They didn't make the College Football Playoff despite winning a stacked Big Ten and beating the league's playoff representative, Ohio State. They squandered a lead in Pasadena and lost a heartbreaker in the Rose Bowl. They will be eager for revenge against rival Pitt and to avenge last year's blowout at Michigan when the Wolverines come to Beaver Stadium. Combine the talent, experience and hunger, and you've got a recipe for a possible repeat.